Tag Archives: Chinua Achebe

Endangered Tongues

After my rant on learning Nepali language perhaps it might seem ironic I wanted to post on preserving Nepali languages. Yet even with my own linguistic frustrations, I am a staunch supporter of preserving languages, particularly less spoken ones.

My undergraduate honors thesis was titled: “Imperial Versus Indigenous: Language Usage and Cultural Identity” which looked at the use of English and Swahili in Kenya and French and Wolof in Senegal. I found the topic wildly interesting, particularly the language usage in literature debate between famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (who I’ve mentioned before) and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Achebe in his book of selected essays “Hopes and Impediments” tackles the question of using the colonial language (English) in his novels. His argument is that the history of colonialism gave him the knowledge that enables him to connect to a wider readership, and he would rather use English as a medium to get his message out, rather than a local language that might be read in parts of Nigeria (also important and valuable), but might not bring Nigerian history, culture and issues to a world stage. His books are heavily culture laden, and in some of his later works he incorporates the use of Nigerian pidgin English in character conversations, but he firmly supports the use of English.

Ngugi on the other hand, first became famous with his novels in English, but later swore off the language, and in his final book in English, “Decolonizing the African Mind,” vowed never again to write in any language other than Kiswahili or Kikuyu (his mother tongue). His argument was that authors, particularly successful authors, should support local languages to encourage their continued use and growth in the written word. That authors with important messages valid to the outside world shouldn’t feel shackled by colonial languages because the age old use of translation can help bring their ideas to a wider audience, not to mention create jobs for local people who can translate these works (if it works for Russian or Japanese why not Kikuyu?).

In several essays the two seemed to be talking to each other, always agreeing to disagree with the other’s point of view. I value them both as important African voices, and I can definitely sympathize with each.

As a reader, if a book is not in English, then it is cut off from me. My friend N’s brother in law wrote a bestseller in Nepali, and although the book sits on the bookshelf in my house, I’m currently helpless to appreciate it. (And I’ve been told even if I could read it in English, it would obviously be richer in Nepali). Although not all the literature is accessible by me,  I value the fact that there is a literary culture in Nepal in (an) indigenous language(s).

However the fact that Nepali is, worldwide, a less spoken language and it is hard enough to learn the  official language outside of the country, consider the multitude of other languages spoken in the country that have far less support and infrastructure. Language is a part of culture, the very words of the language help to create the world it exists in, and languages that become extinct snuff out a whole encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge.

So I wanted to point out that The Asia Mag had an interesting article on endangered Nepali languages and what is being done to preserve them. In a country with nearly 29 million people there are 40 languages spoken within its borders, many of which are growing smaller day by day.

While on the topic of language… a few weeks ago there was news of a  new language recently discovered in northern India (NPR feature), and a new book out about seeking out and preserving some of the world’s most endangered languages, “The Last Speakers.”

And lastly, N’s mother, who is also a Nepali author, will be coming to stay with us for the next few weeks. As a budding writer (or writer wanna be) and avid reader, I’m interested to meet her and see what kind of advice and insight she may have.

Writing and the “Single Story”

The very first African novel I ever read was Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It was (very thankfully) part of my ninth grade world literature curriculum. It was the first out of three or four times that I would read the novel (so far) in my life, and the first of stacks and stacks of African novels from across the continent that I would eventually read.

When the author, Achebe, was a student he read many of the great European classics, and books written about Africa by white Europeans, but he was frustrated to find that there was nothing written from an African perspective. One of his professors challenged him to write, to be the first, and Things Fall Apart was born in 1958.

The thing that stuck out the most in the book for me is the last paragraph. I’ve had discussions with other people who have read the book, who weren’t as haunted by the last few lines, but it always lingered for me…

For those of you who have not read the book, the novel is about Okwonkwo, an Igbo villager whose lifespan straddles the time period before the arrival of Europeans to just after their arrival. It is an entire book which describes his life in detail, his exploits as a wrestler and yam farmer, participation in village life, and conflicts of social taboos and Igbo culture.

[Spoiler alert] At the very end of the novel, chaos ensues, and the new white commissioner of the area observes the final vestiges of the story. The book ends with the white foreigner, who is in the middle of writing his own book about Africa, imagining the circumstances of Okonkwo’s death as an interesting “chapter…perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph at any rate” in his book. The last line is, “He had already chosen the title of the book… The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”

It haunted me because in so many ways it rang true, how little “outsiders” really know about a culture, and how an entire complex book about a man’s life could so easily be brushed off as a passing anecdote in another man’s story. It’s like how we can watch the nightly news and be removed enough from stories about the Pakistani floods to not be moved to tears and horrified by the images.

Achebe’s message of “it’s time for us to write our own stories” gives me a bit of an internal struggle. I whole heartedly agree that others shouldn’t be spoken for, I love reading stories in the voices of people who come from that culture and can truly understand its context.

But then there is me… a person who is interested in other cultures, who (at least on this blog) writes about a culture that is not my own.

I certainly have enough posts that come from my genuine perspective as a person trying to interact with Nepali society, but I also have posts commentating on history and culture where I am removed and the point is to explain more about Nepal in general to an audience who might not be as familiar. I don’t want to speak on behalf of a whole other nation or culture(s), and I certainly welcome people to correct me when I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or incorrectly wrote something, but I also want to share all of the interesting stories, experiences and insights that I too have learned over the years, and to use writing to prompt me to investigate and learn more for myself.

This also comes on the cusp of when I’ve almost grown enough confidence to try and start writing a story whose characters are all Nepali. I wonder out loud if this is kosher?

So I was thinking about all of this stuff when my boss forwarded me a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a young Nigerian author whose novels I admire. She talked about the “danger of the single story” in her twenty minute speech:

I like to think that I am expanding the “single story” about Nepal for people who are not from there, but are interested to know more. It’s more than just Mt. Everest and Sherpa porters (Can You See Everest From Your House?, “Identity” by Bhuwan Dhungana), more than just colorful festivals and Tibetan prayer flags. And I hope our intercultural life also gives insight to others.

So those are my jumbled thoughts early on a Thursday morning.